Spotlight on Shark Island

26 November 2021 | Opinion

It was on this fateful day, 2 October 1904, when German imperial genocide general Lothar von Trotha declared genocide against the Ovaherero people, and extended this termination order to the Nama people on 23 April 1905.

This piece focuses mainly on the historical context of Shark Island at Lüderitz, having served as a notorious concentration camp during German colonial occupation, and draws the attention of Namibia’s foreign policy with respect to the ongoing bilateral negotiations with the Federal Republic of Germany.

At a ceremony characterised by pomp and fanfare on 15 February 2021, Shark Island was declared a national heritage site. However, the period from 1904 to 1908 represents a dark chapter in the Namibian history and the fallout echoes loudly in our society today.

It is vital that the future development of Shark Island forms part of the bilateral negotiations in an attempt to put things right in terms of Namibia’s post-colonial development narratives, aided by the German government’s reparations and reconstruction packages.

Shark Island - with its ugly colonial history - saw hundreds of captured Nama and Ovaherero people raped, humiliated and tortured under harsh weather conditions, as well as mass killings.

Other atrocities committed by German fascist imperial soldiers and their henchmen during 1904-08 also included robbing indigenous communities of their land, small livestock, cattle and hard-earned wealth.

With Shark Island declared as a national heritage site, the lingering question is: What’s next, given its dehumanising role under imperial colonial German occupation of Namibia? These tragic episodes can’t be ignored in the ongoing bilateral negotiations between Namibia and Germany, particularly when it comes to this heritage site.

Abandoned cemetery

Presently, Shark Island is managed by Namibia Wildlife Resorts (NWR) as a camping facility. The island has remained largely the same – with little or no visible improvements over the last 30 odd years. When entering the facility, you are greeted by dotted rock outcrops, decorated plques in the image of Adolf Lüderitz and German imperial soldiers who perished in the ‘stupid war’ of slaughter. From the look of things, Shark Island is reminiscent of an abandoned cemetery. To put it bluntly, it looks like a forgotten area.

Sadly, and paradoxically, the names of indigenous fallen heroes and heroines who fought with bravery and resisted legitimately the hell of colonialism are absent to this day.

The absence of images and symbols depicting the anti-colonial resistance and liberation struggles waged by our ancestors is deeply worrying and constitutes a misrepresentation of history.

This unacceptable state of affairs raises eyebrows, meaning that there is a case to be made urgently to put things in proper historical context.

It is therefore logical that the Namibian government restores the dignity of the affected communities. It is absolutely critical at this age and time that Namibia secures viable national development projects that are highly impactful on the long term in terms of socio-economic benefits to the communities, and also to stimulate the Namibian economy-and create new opportunities for subsequent generations to come.

It is for this compelling reason that this piece examines the impact of the combination of culture, history and tourism on Shark Island. It is proposed to construct Namibia’s first ever genocide memorial museum on Shark Island.

Given its history, the island is best placed to house the proposed museum. Put differently, Shark Island could become a sacred site of remembrance.

Genocide memorial museum projects that are professionally managed have proven successful in places such as Bosnia, Cambodia and Rwanda in the post-conflict era. These memorial museums have become popular global destinations on the ‘genocide tourism’ map. That is why it is envisioned to establish a living genocide memorial museum – one that memorialises the victims, teaches the history and lessons of the genocide, and works to prevent future genocides anywhere else in the world.

Memorials and museums form an intrinsic part of state and society in post-conflict societies, and a comparative approach can capture the dynamics of memory politics and help a nation/state building project.

Promoting heritage

Moreover, this article seeks for the establishment of the museum that allows visitors to explore a variety of informative exhibits on genocide history with Namibian characteristics. The proposed Shark Island genocide memorial museum will be perfect to house all human skulls from the genocide, other significant artifacts and antiques that were repatriated from Germany to Namibia in recent years as well as human remains that may be discovered in future.

The proposed museum project further aims to create awareness about Africa’s vast, dynamic and diverse cultural artefacts and the influence Africa has had and continues to have on the various cultures of the world in the area of culture.

This national memorial genocide museum will be a focal point for preserving and promoting African cultural heritage.

Cultural tourism has been one of the largest and fastest growing global tourism markets before the Covid-19 pandemic hit global economies. Without a doubt, this type of museum will be a popular destination again in the post-Covid era.

Culture and creative industries are increasingly being used to promote destinations and enhance their competitiveness and attractiveness. Namibia has so much to offer - this is the most opportune time to act decisively. In the context of ongoing bilateral negotiations, and as a part of reparations package, Germany could be persuaded to contribute significantly towards the realisation of this noble national project. Not only will German and other European tourists be attracted to this museum project, but this will provide increased understanding to local successive generations about the genocidal acts.

Tying in with development

It is further proposed that the museum feature - amongst other things - a gallery, library, exhibition halls, café and gift shop, amphitheatre designed to host large memorial events of historical significance, educational workshops, dramatic performances, cultural and historical events and film screenings, etc.

In other words, the theatre could host a variety of events - from remembrance ceremonies to festivals for humanity. It may also include a children’s gallery with ongoing activities for learning, discovering and having fun. New-generation museums are designed to become exciting to visit for all age groups, and are a key catalyst for new service-based economies as in the case of the West today.

If one looks at the harbour town of Lüderitz, this is an area of strong heritage history and appeal only if its potential is fully realised. Given the current economic difficulties, there is a need to get extra creative and aggressive in marketing new innovative ideas. To complete the tourist experience, a national memorial genocide museum project ties in well with the ongoing state-funded Lüderitz Waterfront development and other local sites of historical significance that are frequented by visitors, particularly those from foreign countries.

Cultural tourism is important for various reasons: It has a positive economic and social impact - it establishes and reinforces identity and helps to build image. Travellers can learn and appreciate the cultures of Namibia. Africa’s diversity is seen in its varied cultures, long-standing customs, striking scenery and wildlife. This captivating mix may attract a steady stream of visitors from around the world.

We owe it to the fallen

Given the urgency, the real work should start immediately to put things right at Shark Island. But how do we proceed in making sure this noble project comes into fruition? As a point of departure, there is urgent need for a well-structured and all- inclusive conversation involving relevant parties around this envisaged project. A project of this magnitude needs a champion who enjoys broad support from the state and non-state actors. In this regard, the Namibian state should assume an activist role in facilitating capital funding from the German government as part of the reparations and reconstruction packages for the full realisation of this noble idea.

However, the national genocide memorial museum should be managed by those in the know for obvious reasons - a dedicated private enterprise will be best placed to run it strictly on business principles, and generate much-needed revenue for its sustainability. The income generated from this enterprise should be invested back into the memorial to support the preservation of archives and to run a variety of educational programmes.

We owe it to all our fallen Namibian heroes and heroines across the board who fought with bravery, resisted colonialism at all costs and ended up paying the ultimate price. Moreover, if this development plan is well executed and marketed properly, the museum could potentially become a major gateway to Namibia’s developmental ambition. Towns and regions that thrive in this age and time are those who will be differentiated by their lively cultural sense of place, protected natural areas and deep pride in local character.

The proposal of establishing the national memorial genocide museum on Shark Island ties in well with the African Union’s much-touted Agenda 2063. It recognises the important role that culture plays in mobilising and unifying people around common ideals and promoting African culture to build the ideals of Pan-Africanism.

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